Mindful Eating and Self Compassion

June 6th, 2014 by

Mindful eating is as common a practice at many monasteries, meditation retreats, and Zen centers as walking or sitting meditation. Like the more formal mindfulness meditations, mindful eating is a practice of presence, noticing sensations, and observing one’s surroundings. In the monastic setting, practitioners enter dining halls silently, bow to their food to acknowledge the farmers who grew it and the chefs who prepared it, then eat slowly and silently, bringing awareness to each mouthful of food. While we may not have the luxury to eat every meal in silence, we can incorporate some simple mindfulness practices into mealtime and move a more enjoyable relationship with food and more compassionate relationship with ourselves.

Many of us have made it a practice to inhale our breakfast in the car on the way to work or distractedly eat dinner standing up while watching the news. Our attempts at a better relationship with food usually involve strict, unpleasant dieting that feels more like punishment than health. Contrary to dieting, eating mindfully is not about restriction but about listening to our bodies, cultivating awareness of the present moment, and appreciating our meals. For those of us who eat as a stress release or coping mechanism, the practice of mindful eating provides us with the opportunity to face the normally unconscious, uncomfortable feelings that drive us to eat when we do not need or want to eat. We discover that what we are truly hungering for is not food, but a way to satisfy some other kind of hunger: emotional hunger, for example. The reason we are typically unsatisfied after eating and seem to experience endless hunger is that we have not given ourselves the opportunity to fully taste and enjoy our meals, have not made ourselves available to the body’s cues of satisfaction or hunger, and most importantly have not addressed the discomfort that we are compelled to suppress by eating. Instead of ignoring our feelings, punishing our bodies, and squelching the opportunity to enjoy our meals multiple times a day, we can bring awareness and healing to the experience of eating.

By practicing mindful eating, we do not need to binge because we are choosing to consciously address our feelings instead of stuffing them down with food. We no longer need to diet because by fine-tuning our relationship with the body and mind we automatically make healthier choices. Slowing down to fully experience our meals also invites us to become aware of the beauty and richness of the food we eat, where it comes from, and the time and care it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and prepare before it reaches our mouths. We bring awareness to our connectedness to the earth, the plants, animals, and people, and we can abide in our open-heartedness towards all of life, including ourselves.

Simple Mindful Eating Practices to Incorporate Each Day

  1. Sit, Breathe, Eat
    As much as possible, get in the habit of sitting down to eat. When you sit, feel the weight of your body on the chair. Check in with yourself: what sensations are happening in the body? Before lifting your fork, take several deep breaths. Notice the feeling of the breath entering and leaving your body. Say a little blessing or grace before beginning your meal; thank the earth and elements, the farmers that grew your food, and yourself for taking the time to nourish your body and spirit.
  2. Chew Your Food
    It’s incredible how quickly we can gulp down food after hardly chewing. As difficult as it may be at first, commit to taking one bite at a time putting down your fork in between bites, and fully chewing your food. Doing this will allow you to fully taste and enjoy your food and will also give your body time to cue your brain that it’s time to stop when you are full.
  3. Eat Until You are Satisfied
    Even if you do not do this with every meal, as a practice once daily commit to eating only until you feel moderately (or two-thirds) full. What happens when you do this? Notice the feelings that arise when you stop yourself from automatically reaching for another mouthful of food. Observe how your body feels five, twenty, sixty minutes after this practice.

photo credit Andy Newson via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mindfulness Means . . . a Healthy Relationship with Food

June 15th, 2012 by

At some time or another, most of us eat for reasons other than hunger – when we’re under stress, or for emotional reasons. But if eating has become the main way you seek pleasure, relieve discomfort, or socialize, then your relationship with food could be out of balance. Mindfulness training is a powerful therapeutic tool that can help bring your relationship with food back into balance.

Mindfulness Diminishes Negative Thinking

The rapidly growing body of research demonstrates that practicing mindfulness techniques reduces anxiety and depression, improves mood and life satisfaction, is effective in treating a number of physical conditions including chronic pain and fibromyalgia, improves immune function, and can actually change your brain physiology in a positive way. In her book Eating with Fierce Kindness: A Mindful and Compassionate Guide to Losing Weight, mindfulness researcher and teacher Sasha Loring, M. Ed., LCSW states  “the research regarding improved mood is particularly relevant to reducing overeating, because eating behaviors not related to hunger are often responses to emotional distress.”  With mindfulness practice, we can dramatically strengthen our ability to alter habitual thinking patterns, and we can unburden ourselves from rumination, self-defeating thought patterns, negative autobiographical narratives, and destructive patterns of emotional reactivity.

Mindfulness Strengthens the Mind-Body Connection

Another fundamental aspect of mindfulness training having major implications for weight management is that mindfulness strengthens our awareness of the mind-body connection. Many of us have a weak sense of our body’s constant signals. We don’t accurately perceive our body’s subtle messages of hunger, fullness, anger, anxiety, sadness, or stress – all of which can factor into our unhealthy and impulsive eating patterns.  Mindfulness of the body is an essential foundation of mindfulness practice. “By becoming more aware of your body, you can learn to care for your own physical and emotional needs, and you can do so in ways that don’t involve unhealthy eating,” says Loring.

Mindfulness Makes Us Kinder to Ourselves

Mindfulness practices help us create the psycho-emotional climate in which new eating behaviors can be sustained for the long-term. The mind needs to be nourished with healthy thoughts just as our bodies need to be fed with nourishing food. The practice of cultivating internal kindness is another key element of mindfulness training. In my experience as a teacher of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, people under stress, especially people with weight issues, are constantly badgered by a harsh inner critic. As Loring explains, this inner critic is part of the habitual busy mind. “It tends to be judgmental, self-critical, full of rationalizations, impulsive, and prone to negative emotions.” Mindfulness training gives us practices and techniques to generate kindness toward ourselves, especially the harsh internal critic.  When our conflict with the inner critic quiets down, something amazing and often unexpected begins to happen.  The habitual repetitive narrative of the inner critic becomes less noisy. What emerges, describes Loring, is our wise mind – “the mind that knows what’s right for you, is linked to your deepest values, and is fundamentally caring.”

Mindfulness Means a Better Tomorrow

When we become more aware of our habitual patterns of negative thinking, gain a better sense the body’s messages, and become kinder to ourselves, we’ve created the optimal conditions for transforming our relationship with food. Mindfulness training makes these changes possible and sustainable. It’s a lifelong practice. The journey unfolds moment by moment. The benefits are amazing!

How to Meditate While You Eat

February 8th, 2012 by

How do you usually eat a meal of delicious ravioli! Could you intentionally practice eating another way: Smelling the fragrance, seeing the beauty of the food, feeling the smooth texture in the mouth, savoring the delicious flavor? And that’s just the first bite! In this excellent New York Times article, Jeff Gordiner thoroughly explores the practice of how to meditate while you eat!


Harvard University Declares Dairy NOT Part of a Healthy Diet

January 9th, 2012 by

If you want to learn more about what to include and exclude from your diet, consider eliminating (or at least minimizing) dairy. Harvard University disputes the recommendations of the USDA. One perspective is based on science, the other on the influence of agriculture lobbyists. Which do you believe?